By Wayne Turmel

Should virtual meetings be fun? I think so, and in fact, I think fun during meetings should be a priority.

Not everyone agrees. In fact, some people downright hate that idea. After all, they say, meetings take too much time as it is. Fun just wastes time. People should do what needs to be done, forget all the meaningless chatter and fluff, and get back to work.

I couldn’t disagree more. The only way for team members to learn to trust one another and work well together is through interaction. They learn through interactions whether teammates can be counted on, if they’re knowledgeable, and how to collaborate with them. Additionally, they learn whether they actually enjoy working with their teammates. I believe that last part is really important, because if they do, they are more likely to be productive and less stressed. Part of knowing whether they enjoy working with teammates is getting to know them beyond the work.

For on-site employees, non-work opportunities to interact abound. You have coffee breaks, face-to-face meetings over the cubicle wall, even a pint after work. Those activities build up what psychiatrists call social capital, or in other words “Just getting to know that so-and-so is a pretty great person.” That kind of understanding of one another doesn’t happen when the focus is all about the work, all the time. The lack of informal, fun interaction is why so many virtual project teams fail.

In a recent post, “Keep Your Heart in It: 4 Tips for Managing Virtual Employees” Stan Kimer, talked about how critical it is for team members to build relationships, and his words couldn’t be truer.

Sure, some meetings need to be focused and time-sensitive; however, I firmly believe that a tight schedule shouldn’t prevent team members from building and maintaining relationships. You need relaxed, informal communication for people to feel comfortable delivering feedback and offering to help one another. The team leader is responsible for creating those opportunities.

Additionally, I want to make a very important distinction between fun (making something enjoyable) and fluff (activities designed to make people feel better but don’t add any value to the process). What’s the difference?

  • Fun is taking a moment to ask people as they join the meeting what they did over the weekend. A minute or two is all it takes to learn that Rajesh is sleep-deprived because of a new baby (which might explain why he’s slow answering your email), that Marianne’s running a 10K next week, or that Jaimy’s Patriots beat Kevin’s Colts once again. A few minutes creates opportunities for people to share, offer congratulations or support, do a little good-natured teasing, and learn about one another.
  • Fluff is mandating that every person share something funny that happened over the weekend or conducting an ice-breaker exercise that has no bearing on the work every meeting.
  • Fun is allowing people to make jokes or digress for short periods of time in the interest of helping people feel relaxed and comfortable with one another. Communication flows better when you know how to approach people, and nothing reveals more about someone than what they find funny or amusing.
  • Fluff is letting those discussions drag on and eat up precious time, or not prioritizing those discussions so that truly critical work is completed as needed.

It’s important to remember that meetings have two important functions: to communicate what needs to be communicated right now, and to create a long-term environment where people are willing and able to work together comfortably. Building relationships through informal (and fun) interactions is key to ensuring the latter.

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.

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